As training camp wrapped up last August, the New York Giants released their motto for the 2012 season: “Build the Bridge.” At its conception, the slogan was meant to be motivational, inspiring head coach Tom Coughlin’s team to build off the success it had during the Super Bowl run the year before.
But the motto fell short of its designed purpose, ultimately becoming an insincere caption for an underperforming club.
Coughlin has had success in the past with motivational tactics. After starting the 2007 season with back-to-back losses against Dallas and Green Bay, Coughlin invited Army Lt. Col. Greg Gadson, who lost both of his legs in an explosion in Baghdad, to address the team in the days leading up to New York’s Week 3 matchup with the Washington Redskins.
In his speech to the team, Gadson pushed the Giants to make the most of the opportunity before them (via Greg Garber of ESPN): "I just spoke from the heart, as a soldier and a former football player. I talked to them about appreciating the opportunities in their lives, how special and privileged they were."
After falling behind by two scores at one point, the Giants rallied back and captured their first win of the season, 24-17, on a goal-line stand in the final seconds of the game. Stopping the 'Skins on four consecutive downs from the Giants' 1-yard line propelled Coughlin's team to an historic season after a dangerously slow start.
New York finished the regular season 10-6, earning a playoff berth and naming Gadson an honorary co-captain along the way. The Giants were referred to as “Road Warriors” that season after winning an NFL-record 10 straight games away from home on their way to victory in Super Bowl XLII.
Coughlin had motivated his football team to accomplish the ultimate goal in 2007-08. But after three consecutive late-season collapses in 2008, 2009 and 2010, his methods were clearly wearing thin. The epic collapse of 2010, which was spearheaded by an improbable loss to the Eagles—more commonly known as the Miracle in the New Meadowlands—was the most painful.
It’s worth noting that Coughlin usually likes to keep the past in the past. However, with his job seemingly on the line at the outset of the 2011 season, the head coach drew upon his team’s previous shortcomings and came up with the motto “Finish.” To emphasize his point, Coughlin showed his players an inspirational video, which featured a high school cross-country runner, Holland Reynolds, crawling across the finish line, completing the race in spite of nearly crippling pain.
The message worked. At 7-7 heading into Week 16, the future looked pretty bleak to everyone except for the members of the Giants' organization. The mantra shifted ever-so-slightly to “All In” as the Giants rattled off seven straight wins to conclude the season, which included a second Super Bowl victory in five seasons.
Again, in 2012, Coughlin was faced with the task of creating a motivational phrase for his team. It was much more difficult this time around. How do you keep players who have already reached the pinnacle of professional sports—in some cases, twice—hungry to win another championship?
Coughlin came up with “Build the Bridge.” According to a statement released by the team, “The slogan conveys the Giants’ desire to take the outstanding performances at the end of the 2011 season and bridge them to the upcoming 2012 season,” (via Paul Dottino of CBS New York).
It was very un-Coughlin-like to call upon past success as a motivational factor. It made sense for Coughlin to remind his players of past failures before the 2011 season, but it seemed like the only thing the Giants had their sights set on “building” in 2012 was their legacy.
Instead of separating the team from its 2011 success, Coughlin’s dynastic-sounding motto almost patted the Giants on the back for their hard work from a season ago. It wasn’t even all-inclusive, as New York’s 2012 draft picks and free agent acquisitions played no part in the Giants’ previous Super Bowl triumphs. How were they expected to relate?
When the going got tough late in the season, the Giants players were not consistent with their motto. Safety Antrel Rolle, a vocal leader of the Giants' defense, was one of them (via Sam Spiegelman of SNYGiants):
Last year is a totally different year, totally different experience. If we get ourselves caught up on what took place last year, we’re going to find ourselves in a hole we don’t want to be in. The only thing that’s going to help us out this year is our determination and our will to go out there and get it done.
By abandoning last year’s success, Rolle essentially rendered the team motto meaningless. He called upon the team’s “determination,” but the only determination the Giants had shown in 2012 was to validate their Super Bowl title from the season before, as Art Stapleton of the Bergen Record pointed out on the season finale of Giants Online.
New York’s two biggest wins this season, at San Francisco in Week 6 and versus Green Bay in Week 12, were rematches from the 2011 playoffs. Both the 49ers and Packers wanted to come out on top in their respective grudge matches, but, Stapleton argues, the Giants won both of those games thanks to their motivation to preserve their title as defending Super Bowl champs.
As a result, the Giants failed to form an identity of their own in 2012. They may have ended the regular season with a similar 9-7 record, but truthfully, the ’12 Giants were not the same squad that toppled the New England Patriots, 21-17, in Super Bowl XLVII.
This offseason, Coughlin and his Giants need to take a long look in the mirror and try to figure out who they really are.